I tend to forget how beautiful she was. These days, yes, she looks like someone’s pleasant grandmother. But in 1944, she was nineteen and lovely in Gaslight, her first movie. As Elizabeth Taylor’s older sister in National Velvet. Indeed, she is so beautiful that people my age and younger, who grew up with her as Jessica Fletcher, don’t necessarily recognize her.
I remember when the first episode of Murder She Wrote premiered, but it came on after my bedtime. What I remember more, therefore, from my formative years is the frequent rerunning of Bedknobs and Broomsticks on the Disney Channel. I never soured on it; I own it on DVD. It’s an interesting role—at once crotchety and pleasant. Not fond of kids but better with them than a lot of the other adults in their life. A ferocious woman who lives a quiet, spinsterly life.
Honestly, she was a bit wasted as Jessica Fletcher. Not just because she was doing that role forever when there were other interesting characters she could have played—I can’t be the only person who would love to see her as the Dowager Duchess of Denver from the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries—but because Jessica isn’t a very interesting role. There are a few episodes where we get a weird “identical cousins” thing going on, but mostly, she was playing the same thing, week after week, for twelve seasons. And Jessica didn’t have much emotional depth to explore.
She actually acquired three competitive nominations over the years before a very long empty patch and an eventual honorary award. She lost for Gaslight to Ethel Barrymore, for The Picture of Dorian Gray to Anne Revere, for The Manchurian Candidate to Patty Duke. She’s won six Golden Globes, five Tonys. She was nominated for an Emmy for Murder She Wrote every year it was on the air, yet never won. It’s hard to claim she’s underrated.
And yet there it is. When most people think about her, they don’t think of her delightfully sinister performance from The Manchurian Candidate. They don’t even think of her maniacally scheming performance from Sweeney Todd, another personal favourite of mine. She’s Jessica Fletcher. On a good day, the considerably more complicated but considerably less mentioned Eglantine Price, witch and Nazi-fighter.
In a way, though, there is a power to the Jessica Fletcher character. After all, she was an old woman—a retired English teacher, in-universe—who was still the lead character on a major hour-long network series. She was almost sixty when the show debuted, nearly twice the age where women start getting ignored by the studios and networks. That’s admirable all by itself, even if you haven’t gotten around to seeing her as Mrs. Lovett.